2022 | Government

Head of county police union says he was surprised by Elrich comment that black uniforms are ‘intimidating’

Says improving comfort is goal of possible change; social justice groups advise spending money on better policing

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A proposal to change the type of uniform worn by Montgomery County police officers from the current black model is meant to make the uniform more comfortable and not to change public perception of officers, the president of the county police union said Friday.

On Wednesday, County Executive Marc Elrich said many people find black police uniforms to be “intimidating” when he was asked during a call with reporters about whether the police department was considering changing the color of officers’ uniforms.

“There’s a pretty broad consensus that the black uniforms are intimidating and are meant to be intimidating, and we don’t want people to appear to be intimidating,” Elrich said. “And so we’ve been discussing with the department and the union alternate colors for police uniforms.”

But Lee Holland, president of Fraternal Order of Police [FOP] Lodge 35, the county’s police union, told Bethesda Beat on Friday that the reason for possibly changing uniforms is that black uniforms absorb heat, and sometimes the fabric of the current uniforms fades.

“Our uniforms are old. They’re hot. So we were looking at getting a more comfortable uniform,” he said.

Holland said he was surprised to hear Elrich say that black uniforms intimidate people.

“That’s never been part of the conversation,” he said. “The county executive hasn’t even been part of the conversation. It’s been between us and the police department.”

Holland added that nationally, many law enforcement officers wear dark blue or black uniforms, similar to those worn by county officers.

“I guess he’s saying that every police department looks intimidating,” he said. “The comment to me… a lot of things can be intimidating to different people. I might be scared of snakes. You might not be.”

Meanwhile, local social justice groups say they’d rather see the county spend money on improving policing than on new uniforms, which Elrich suggested could cost $1 million.

“When it comes to the issues between community mistrust and law enforcement, it’s not necessarily the color of the uniform that’s the issue. It’s the behavior,” Carlean Ponder of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition said in an interview Friday. “So my concern would be the amount of money that’s going toward this endeavor.”

Ponder said she would rather see the money spent on professionals trained in mental health crisis intervention. More funding for trauma-informed care, she said, will help prevent future incidents of police using force, such as the fatal shooting of 21-year-old Ryan LeRoux by four county police officers at a McDonald’s in Gaithersburg last year.

“I’d rather see the county executive, our County Council, put more emphasis on making sure police are not the only option when it comes to community safety,” Ponder said.

Additionally, the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP released a statement Friday, saying that rather than changing the uniform color, the organization would prefer to see the police department make changes to its “systemic practices.”

“Changing the color and fabric of a uniform is not the type of re-imagined police force envisioned by the people in this county who are the subject of disproportionate and often questionable enforcement actions,” the statement read.

Police Chief Marcus Jones wrote in a statement to Bethesda Beat on Friday evening that the county police department changed the color of uniforms from tan to black in 2006 for better comfort and safety.

“We are currently exploring a new uniform color and style,” Jones wrote in the statement. “This process takes a significant amount of time working with the FOP and the safety committee agreed upon by both parties. There will be a testing period and there must be agreement on the final choice by the parties. Finally, the vendors will provide final timelines with delivery of the uniforms.”

Holland said Friday that the cost and timing of introducing the new uniforms might vary depending on the new color chosen. Those factors might also depend on how many clothing items, such as jackets and sweaters, switch colors, he said.

“If we stay with the black, or we go to a dark blue uniform, you can switch to those rather quickly. If you’re going to something different, let’s say a green or a tan or a gray, those custom colors can take a year or more,” Holland said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com